Friday, August 8, 2014

Ethics Board Dismisses Grain Inspector Escort Complaint

By Mark Edward Nero

The Washington State Executive Ethics Board on Aug. 6 dismissed a complaint filed by a State Senator who maintained that Gov. Jay Inslee broke the law when he revoked authorization for state troopers to escort grain inspectors past picketing longshore workers at the Port of Vancouver.

State Sen. Don Benton (R-Vancouver) had sent a letter to the Ethics Board on July 30, arguing that by removing the security escort, the governor was “forcing” terminal operator United Grain Corp. to negotiate with the longshore union.

But in an Aug. 6 letter, the ethics board’s acting director, Kathryn Wyatt, said that the governor’s actions “do not appear to violate the substantive provisions of the Ethics in Public Service Act,” but also added that the board didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter.

Benton has 20 days from the Ethics Board’s ruling to request that the ruling be reviewed, but has not yet indicated whether he intends to do so.

The labor dispute between United Grain Corp. and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union workers has been ongoing at the port for 17 months and law enforcement escorts of the grain inspectors dates back to September 2013.

The escorts began in response to an incident the prior month when one inspector filed a police report saying that they were verbally harassed while crossing the picket line. The inspectors are state employees.

The escorts by troopers went on for several months, but on July 7, Inslee halted the practice, and his office said it had been previously made clear that the escort was only a temporary measure meant to give United Grain Corp. time to hammer out a labor contract with the ILWU.

In response to the pulling of the escort, inspectors have refused to enter the terminal, citing safety concerns, leading United Grain to halt grain shipments and effectively shutter operations at the terminal for the time being.

United Grain says it had been scheduled to ship 17 million bushels in August, and that the grain-shipping season is expected to ramp up in September. The company says it was able to get waivers on the inspections for two shiploads of grain, equal to about three million bushels of product, but that ships were delayed up to 11 days while undergoing the waiver process.